TODAY'S trivia question for American taxpayers: Did you say ``yes'' to the $1 checkoff for presidential elections on your 1989 income tax form? It seems that millions of Americans are checking ``no'' - and that is causing problems that are not so trivial.
The checkoff program, which pumped $178 million into the campaigns of George Bush, Michael Dukakis, and other candidates in 1988, is beginning to run dry. If current trends continue, there could be a shortfall of $131 million in the grants scheduled for the 1996 elections.
Experts are puzzled about why Americans are refusing to take part in the $1 checkoff. Participation has dropped sharply, from a peak of 28.7 percent of all taxpayers in 1980 to just 20.1 percent last year.
Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts suggests at least two factors may be at work.
``The tail-off has been a reflection of the fact there has been no push to get people to do it ... and the increased cynicism of the public,'' he says. ``They don't want to contribute their dollars to a system they don't think is sensitive to them.''
Technically, the $1 contribution does not cost the taxpayer anything. Income tax forms clearly state: ``Checking `Yes' will not change your tax or reduce your refund.'' The money comes out of the federal treasury.
But Herbert Alexander, an expert on campaign finance, suggests that people are concerned about the federal deficit, and view this spending as unnecessary.
``The public recognizes that we have a big debt, and this is money that is ... revenue lost to the general treasury,'' he says.
Dr. Alexander, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, says a dozen states have similar checkoff programs to finance state elections - and those programs also show declining participation.
The easiest answer for Congress would be to increase the amount of the checkoff to $1.50 or $2, Alexander says. Minnesota already did that for state elections - boosting the amount to $2, and then to $5.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, agrees that would be the most direct solution. But he warns that would ``not get at the core problem, which is increasing disaffection'' with US politics.
``People do not want to be associated with politics,'' Dr. Sabato says. ``They say, `I'm not going to have even one dollar go to all those bozos to spend on those negative ads.' ''
Originally, the checkoff was designed to clean up American politics. The goal was to pay for presidential campaigns with public money, at the same time getting tainted, special-interest money out of the process.
It has not worked entirely as intended.
In the 1988 general election, Mr. Bush and Governor Dukakis each spent $46.1 million in public grants. The Republican and Democratic Parties each spent another $8.3 million for their nominees.
A detailed study by Alexander, however, shows that concurrent campaigns, using private funds, were waged by both candidates outside the legal spending limits. Using loopholes in the law, corporations, labor unions, and individuals poured another $52 million into the Dukakis campaign, and another $39.2 million into the Bush effort.
Alexander concludes: ``Expenditure limits are illusory in a pluralistic system.'' In a society that guarantees free speech and press, big money will continue to carve new channels around any legal limits on spending, the professor says.
This feeds public cynicism, however. With the political process awash in money, there is growing intolerance among many voters, who object, as one analyst explained it, ``to mixing my clean money with someone's dirty money.''
But some federal officials are convinced the current checkoff system can be fixed. They say the greatest need is for public education about the value of the presidential election fund.
The Federal Election Commission last year asked Congress for $250,000 to develop an advertising campaign about the fund; but Congress trimmed the request from the final budget.
Robert Dreyfuss, an official with Public Citizen, an advocacy group, says such an advertising campaign could significantly increase contributions. A recent opinion poll sponsored by Public Citizen found that only 24 percent of Americans are aware of the checkoff system for campaigns. In fact, 42 percent think presidential races are still paid for entirely with private money.
In the 1988 election, the $1 checkoff also provided $9.2 million to each of the major parties to fund their national conventions. In addition, $67.2 million went to the large field of presidential aspirants in the primaries.